Last summer, transparent boxes with clear, lightly colored walls appeared in the center of Yoyogi Fukamachi Mini Park. Inside were ceramic sinks, urinals and toilets, flanked by metal toilet paper dispensers, all visible to passersby.

These structures, the work of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Shigeru Ban, were the first of 17 public restrooms set to dot the landscape of Shibuya Ward thanks to The Tokyo Toilet project.

“The use of public toilets in Japan is limited because of stereotypes that they are dark, dirty, smelly and scary,” writes the Nippon Foundation, which is organizing the project with help from local government.

In place of old public restrooms, often in nondescript stone sheds and lit by harsh fluorescent lights, the project has built stylish and accessible toilets designed by Kengo Kuma, Nigo and other notable architects and designers. To the international audience — which regularly praises Japanese toilets, with their warm seats, cheerful musical accompaniment and automatic lids — they’re seen as examples of aspirational urbanism, and evidence of an oddity seemingly found in this country alone.

“Toilets are a symbol of Japan’s world-renowned hospitality culture,” organizers write in their mission statement, fulfilling multiple foreign fetishes in one fell swoop: hospitality, cleanliness and futuristic design — packaged as accessible public lavatories.

The foreign press, always eager to find the odd and hypermodern in Japan, has latched on to this narrative with fervor: “Cleanliness and hospitality are so ingrained in Japanese culture that even the bathrooms are works of art,” wrote Architectural Daily on the opening of Ban’s transparent toilets. “The toilets were presented as another futuristic and aesthetically pleasing example of the country’s technological advancements,” penned a writer at The New York Times. “When people ask me what Japan is, I answer we are very creative and nerdy, very weird but creative. … I think it shows off Japan,” said a visitor, to the toilets, quoted by CBC. “No, it’s not an alien spaceship — it’s Shibuya’s latest public toilet,” wrote TimeOut about the toilet designed by Kazoo Sato.

For many international publications, these are not just well-designed toilets — they are well-designed Japanese toilets. Though it’s surely unintentional, these writers are falling prey once again to an old trope: “weird Japan.”

Writing in The New Republic in December in response to reportage on Japan’s “rent-a-family industry,” which proved to be a scam, Ryo Spaeth outlines what he says is “a tiresome journalistic genre: the story that depicts Japan as a menagerie of the weird, the alien, the freakish.” He was writing in response to a specific incident, but extrapolates to diagnose a malaise that plagues foreign and Japanese media. “I don’t doubt the veracity of these stories,” writes Spaeth on articles of this variety, “but I am deeply skeptical of the way they are often framed: to maximize the inherent strangeness of the Japanese.”

Foreign observations of the Tokyo Toilet Project have perpetuated narrative and linguistic “traps” of the “weird Japan’’ canon, deploying ready-made tropes that heighten the otherness of Japanese material culture. Sato’s toilet, while uncannily similar to Paris’ public Sanisette, is made to seem uniquely “alien.” It is as if only in Tokyo, not in New York or London or Singapore, that we find the future today.

Commentators were so lost in the promises of Japan within the toilets that they were blinded to the real symbolic value of the Project: as a barometer for the condition of Tokyo’s urbanism. Public toilets are often uncanny gauges for urban ascent or decay. In The Guardian, Colin Marshall writes, “I’ve found no more telling indicator — and at times, no more important one — than the state of its subway station toilets, the true measure of urban civilization.”

When COVID-19 hit, cities were seen by many as dangerous places during a pandemic. As time dragged on, city-dwellers began to rethink life in crowded urban centers. If cities hope to revive their flagging reputations, then clean, new public toilets are as good a place as any to start.

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